That's the crucial question heading into the NBA Finals, where the Lakers and the Celtics will meet for the 12th time. We can debate strategy and match-ups all day, but the series will be decided by the Lakers' ability to match Boston's imposing physical game.
In 2008, the Celtics battered the Lakers with stifling defense and strong inside play. But, beyond the X's and O's, they were simply tougher--much tougher--and that made all the difference. The Lakers looked discombobulated every time the Celtics punched them in the mouth, most notably in the embarrassing Game 6 meltdown. In the last two years, however, Kobe and the Lakers have learned how to win. They overcame obstacles in the playoffs last season (Houston) and this season (Oklahoma City, Phoenix) and started to add a dose of mental fortitude to their on-court talent.
Still, they've yet to prove they can win a series against a bruising team like Boston. The Yao Ming-less Rockets, the young Oklahoma City Thunder and the finesse Suns were never going to pose a serious physical challenge to LA. And, yes, they won the title last year, but, let's be honest, the Magic are paper tigers.
So, sure, the Lakers can handle adversity better, which will help, but players like Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum will need to be as consistently unmerciful as Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett if the Lakers hope to avenge their 2008 loss. Do they have it in them? It's tough to tell. They seem to not only have better chemistry than they did two years ago, but they also seem to grasp conceptually what they need to do to win. Whether they can take that abstract understanding and apply it to changing the character of a team that historically has acted as if it only needs to play at its peak selectively will be the key to this series.
RCS' NBA Finals picks will be out before Game 1 on Thursday.